Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 1)

Perhaps my favorite thing about David Bentley Hart is that it hardly matters about what he is writing. If he puts ink on paper it is more or less certain to be witty, engaging, and intellectually provocative. I was reminded of this recently when I realized that it had been months since I dusted off the large section of my bookshelf dedicated to Hart and allowed myself to be immersed in his prose. To correct this, I picked an article at random to read: "The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok: On the Theology of Robert Jenson." The essay took the form of a response to criticisms--which Hart considered legitimate--about his hasty treatment of Jenson's work in a recent publication. In response, he made an effort to summarise, praise, and disagree with Jenson in the matter of a few short pages.

Most of Hart's disagreements with Jenson are philosophical and theological in nature, and they are criticisms I certainly found compelling. There was one area in which, in my estimation, Jenson's theology went uncritiqued, perhaps because Hart lacked space or perhaps because he doesn't give the line of argument much currency. There is, however, a degree to which Jenson's anthropology is unconvincing because it is emotionally unsatisfying. This does not, of course, preclude the logical possibility that Jenson is correct, but inasmuch as theology is an encounter with the divine and, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, it is impossible to totally separate "personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church" it is impossible to affirm teachings which are so existentially destructive as to nullify any positive experience of God.

Hart himself recongizes that "summary is usually invidious," and I admit that to make a critique based solely on someone else's summary is even more odious. With that said, however, here is what Hart has to say about Jenson which has so disturbed me:

Who God is, therefore, subsists in the Father's loving concern for the Son and the Son's loving obedience to the Father, and in the freedom of the Spirit who--as unending divine futurity--makes this relation eternal. In Jenson's rather daring formulation, the Spirit "frees" the Father and the Son for the adventure of this love, and for the infinite possibility that is this love's perfection. As for us, our place in this drama is that of the compaions of the Son: we are included in the story of God's freedom because Christ is the man who is for all men, and so for the Father to have Christ as his Son he must ahve us as well; for there is no Son apart from him who said "Father, forgive them."

Hart will object that Jenson's construction removes any Logos asarkos (a Word apart from the incarnation in Jesus) and that Jenson's admirable focus on Christ's uniqueness is meaningless without a classical understanding of transcendence which Jenson rejects. For my part, what struck me is just how trivial I become in this narrative and not just me but you too. All of humanity becomes incidental, the happenstance of this eternal love and becoming. That the Son happened to be man for all men, that he should happen to need or desire or will companions, that he would be predestined to say "Father, forgive them" means that there must be an object for that being, that desire, that phrase. God does not create us out of love or out of an ontological impulse to create or out of a desire to share the beauty of otherness (which, as best I recall, approaches ideas expressed by Hart himself), but merely so that the Son who was always determined to the Son incarnate needed a place and a body and a community into which to incarnate. We are all no more than the industrial by-product of God's mechanism of becoming, and I for one find that thought deeply disatisfying. Perhaps it is theologically naive of me, but I have always been inclined to believe that the Incarnation was for the sake of creation and not creation for the sake of the Incarnation (which Jenson's systems seems to suggest).

In the course of a few short pages, Hart gave me innumerable quotes worth sharing and provoked a wealth of theological thought, but in the interest of not being any more longwinded than I already have, I will save those thoughts for another entry.

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